Itʼs not often one has the opportunity to talk to the lead singer in a Wagner production about his rock band. Daniel Frank, a singer in the Swedish group Solid Flow, sang the title role in the new Tannhäuser unveiled at the Prague State Opera on Saturday night. At a reception afterward he was chatty about B.B. King and John Lee Hooker and Nordic heavy metal, though too well-mannered to mention the glaring problems plaguing the production, particularly after trading a manly hug with director Andrejs Žagars.

Daniel Frank (Tannhäuser) and Jolana Fogašová (Venus) © Hana Smejkalová
Daniel Frank (Tannhäuser) and Jolana Fogašová (Venus)
© Hana Smejkalová
The problems did not include Frank, who attacked what is arguably the most demanding tenor role in all of opera with gusto. A trained singer who did mostly soloist and choir work before devoting himself to opera, Frank, 38, has a relatively short list of credits that are notable mostly for a voice change; he started out as a baritone and now bills himself as a heldentenor. His voice is not big but it is bright, cutting above the orchestra, and to judge by Saturday nightʼs performance his chief virtue is stamina. He started strong and stayed that way all evening, showing a rock starʼs flair for belting out emotive lines standing, kneeling or cringing on the floor.

And Frank had good support. State Opera regular Dana Burešová was in full Wagnerian voice as Elisabeth, lending gravity and surprising tenderness to the role, particularly in her anguished scenes in the second act. Slovak singer Jolana Fogašová was a ravishing Venus, a sexy seductress in scarlet with a fiery voice to match. Two stalwarts of Prague stages, Jiří Sulženko (Hermann) and Svatopluk Sem (Wolfram), hit all the right low notes with solid, steady performances.

And the combined choruses of the State Opera and National Theater were thrilling. Each has a reputation for maintaining high choral standards at its own house, and together they were like a force of nature – mesmerizing in Venusberg, relentless in the pilgrimsʼ march, and overwhelming in the condemnation of Tannhäuser after the singing competition reveals his sins.

Why, then, was the production so flat? Tannhäuserʼs stormy departure from Venusberg offered a promising start, but as soon as the stage began to fill, the air went out. The singers milled about, seemingly unsure where to go and what to do, generally comporting themselves like they were on the street rather than onstage. The uplifting finish to the first act, when Tannhäuser agrees to rejoin his singing comrades to heroic strains in the orchestra, seemed more like a group of businessmen sealing a deal with handshakes and backslaps.

© Hana Smejkalová
© Hana Smejkalová
The lackluster approach to the material was surprising, given Žagarsʼ long tenure at the Latvian National Opera, where he has been general director since 1996 and handled material ranging from Wagner to Borodin. But this production had no point of view, no inner spark. In the parlance of pop music, it was a “cover” – a straightforward presentation of the piece with nothing new to say. 

Some operas could withstand such inattentiveness. But Tannhäuser, like most Wagner works, has long periods of heavy singing and no action, demanding some creative ideas and movement onstage. Without that, no matter how good the singing, the piece never develops any legs. In this case, the problem was compounded by putting everyone in generic 19th-century costumes – except, oddly, Tannhäuser, who ran around in what looked like a secondhand sport coat for most of the night. The combination of magisterial music, mundane costuming and listless acting was deadly; the piece just never jelled. 

Fortunately, there was an experienced hand at the podium. British conductor Hilary Griffiths has been collaborating with the State Opera for more than 20 years, and can always to be counted on to turn in a solid performance. The overture sounded more Czech than German – which is to say, nimble and heartfelt rather than dark and domineering – but the orchestra hit its stride midway through the first act and was commanding thereafter, showing some particularly skilled and subtle work in Elisabethʼs scenes throughout the second act. 

The cast and conductor will vary over the rest of the season, and a shaky premiere is no reason to miss taking in this Tannhäuser. The State Opera, which was built by Pragueʼs German community to stage homeland productions, opened in January 1888 with a production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. So Wagner has a long and storied history at this house; outside of Germany, there may be no more resonant place to see his operas. Especially when the lead singer rocks.